Monday, January 3, 2011

Abracadabra, Hocus Pocus, and the Biorhythms of Memes

Our intriguing magician friend Chris Philpott posed an interesting question about the preponderance of the two most popular magic words:

So since you're The Man on magic words (and you are, whether you like it or not) I have a question for you. My most recent blog was about trying to find various magical applications for Google's Ngram viewer -- as you may know, this is Google's database of all the millions of books they've digitized -- you can enter a word or phrase and see its relative popularity over hundreds of years. I was putting in various magic-related words (like magicians' names and various magic tricks) when I decided to compare the relative popularity of two well-known magic words, Abracadabra and Hocus Pocus. I discovered the word Abracadabra had a huge surge in popularity in the 1920s (comparable to the word Wizard in the 1990s) -- I suspect there's a reason for the surge (probably as clear as J. K. Rowling's influence on the word Wizard), but I can't think what it would be. Any thoughts?

Chris, there are actually two very different answers to your question about abracadabra's surge in the 1920s.

Here's our first answer: What we see when presented with a chart comparing word density over time from the Google Books scanspace is both something and nothing at all. It's certainly something because we can perceive it, i.e. the charts dazzle us with their jagged edges and numerous nodes, suggesting the compilation of many data. However, the trends that they argue are circular, based as they are only upon the tiny subset of books which Google has scanned from the periods under consideration. If we had it on reliable word that Google had scanned, say, 95% of all extant publications, we should still consider word density measurements statistically insignificant considering that the missing 5% might contain 95% of the contemporary appearances of "abracadabra" in print. Moreover, Google cannot estimate the readership of its catalog, which would be necessary to make any evaluative claims about the familiarity of a word or phrase in common culture or parlance, which is really what the word density charts are attempting to demonstrate. Words used by authors in printed publications which survived until 2010 are not, by themselves, particularly significant. The field of statistics is famous for its bold sleights of hand. Most any contention can be illustrated by a sufficiently culled data set and evaluative methodology. Google's scanned word data are of course too fun not to keep playing with, but we must always bear in mind their inherent balderdash.

Here's our second answer: The rise of "abracadabra" in 1920s is the exhalation of a meme's biorhythm. Decades later, the "wizard" meme began its exhalation, and J.K. Rowling rode the wave. We can't even say that Rowling buoyed the wave -- she is merely part and parcel of a grand expansion cycle.

Chris responds:

I'm not sure I'm 100% with you on J.K. Rowling -- certainly she rode some kind of wave but I think her talent was a wave generator of its own. I suspect if she had called Harry a "mage", then instead of showing The Wizards of Waverly Place, The Disney Channel would now be showing The Mages of Mulberry Lane. Writers are notorious copycats (though the demands of the marketplace tend to accentuate this weakness).

Indeed, Chris, one definition of "meme" is an expression that can be copycatted. (The Greek root is mimema: that which can be mimicked or imitated). Without discounting Rowling's achievements, let's remember that she didn't coin the word "wizard"; it was already a charming Briticism for "excellent." Just as the common cold spreads one handshake at a time (Richard Dawkins has unsavorily called memes "viruses of the mind"), human culture spawns. Rowling, bless her heart, is simply one node of the complex informational network that enables the "wizard" meme to spread and thrive.

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